Candidates for Legislature talk of priorities, in Goshen
GOSHEN — Incumbents from the state Legislature sat with their opponents and fielded questions Wednesday evening, Sept. 14, at Sunset Meadows Winery in Goshen. The event was sponsored by the Goshen Business Circle.
Moderator Mike Rell (a lobbyist and son of former Gov. Jodi Rell) handled the questioning of state Rep. Maria Horn (D-64), who is running for a third term; her opponent, Republican Chris DuPont; state Rep. Stephen Harding (R-107), who is running for the 30th state Senate seat vacated by retiring state Sen. Craig Miner (R-30), and Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, the Democratic candidate for the 30th District.
Each candidate made an opening statement.
DuPont said if elected he will act as an “advocate” for the Northwest Corner. He said he is opposed to any attempt to take authority away from town land use commissions and school boards, and that he supports law enforcement and small businesses.
Horn said as chair of the Legislature’s public safety committee, she is focused on law enforcement and mental health, both in providing training and resources for police who must interact with people suffering from mental health problems, and for the mental health of law enforcement officers themselves.
Horn is also on the Energy And Technology Committee, where the “blinking red light” is providing broadband access for Northwest Corner towns, and on the Environment Committee.
Of the latter, Horn said the environment is the “cultural focus” for the region. “It impacts almost everything we do in the Northwest Corner.”
Horn also said a priority of hers is to ensure and enhance rural health-care services, including access to reproductive health care and, specifically, abortion services.
Harding also described himself as an advocate for the Northwest Corner and vowed to “ensure it is getting the services, attention and respect it deserves.”
He spoke about better broadband access, about the plan to close the labor and delivery unit at Sharon Hospital, and about making sure towns retain the ability to make decisions about open space and conservation.
Zimmerman recounted her experience as an advocate for early education, health care and small business. “I know what it means behind the scenes,” she said.
Rell, working from written questions from the audience of about 50 people, noted that the state is running a surplus of about $900 million, and asked what should be done with those funds. He asked specifically about the prospect of full funding for the pension plans of state workers, and about unemployment claims caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harding said, “We have a long way to go.” He said the state’s regulatory environment has improved somewhat, and said he was worried about the effect of large numbers of unemployment claims on the ability of small businesses to expand.
Zimmerman said, “I think it’s fair to say when taxes are used responsibly, we’re OK with it.”
She urged that budget surpluses be used for small business grants to help businesses expand and/or make repairs and improvements that were delayed by the pandemic.
Horn said the surplus should be used first to make sure the state’s “rainy day fund” is fully funded and then for the unfunded pension liabilities.
“That hasn’t gone away,” she said, adding that while the state has put some $5 billion toward the liability, $40 billion remains.
DuPont said the Legislature should be called into session to discuss the surplus.
“It’s our money. It should be returned to the taxpayers.”
Rell asked about pay raises for state workers, reducing the numbers of state workers, the effect of the pandemic on state services, and controlling the cost of overtime in those agencies that are experiencing a lack of employees: the State Police, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Transportation.
Horn reminded everyone that the state works with a two-year budget, and that the session that begins in 2023 is a budget year.
“We slimmed down, and then the pandemic hit. The Department of Labor was overwhelmed.”
The result was a lot of overtime and poor service.
“So short-term ends up costing more,” she continued. “There is no easy answer but we need to make sure it’s not a quick fix.”
DuPont said the state should support services, especially in corrections, and encourage more people to apply for those jobs.
Zimmerman said she worked as a navigator for state employees trying to access their benefits, and found many of them frustrated by the attrition on the state workforce. “That hasn’t changed,” she said. “We need to fill these positions.”
Harding said the pandemic forced the state to find efficiencies. “Who knew about Zoom?” before the pandemic, he asked. He noted that state employees are retiring in large numbers because of changes to pension regulations.
He said the Legislature should be asking department heads for efficiencies “at the management level.”